But when these basic needs have been satisfied—will there still be something that everybody needs? Philosophers think so. They believe that man cannot live by bread alone. Of course everyone needs food. And everyone needs love and care. But there is something else—apart from that—which everyone needs, and that is to figure out who we are and why we are here.
In Alberto's introductory letter to Sophie, he tells her what the aim of philosophy is and why it is central to our lives. Throughout the book, Gaarder repeatedly addresses the importance of philosophy and its relevance to our everyday lives. This is where Alberto first states that idea. Basically, once we have satisfied our basic needs we have further needs that must be met—the needs of our mind. We are thinking creatures, and we can ponder the universe, and if we do not do so, it is a tragedy. It is not simply good for us to ask important philosophical questions; rather, it is necessary for us to do so because otherwise our lives to a large extent will have been in vain. The only way that we can find meaning in life is through philosophizing, and it is important to have meaning. Some who do not philosophize may think that they have found meaning but in reality they have simply accepted meaning handed down to them from someone or some tradition. But these are things that each person must work out, and that is why it is so critical that we all engage in philosophical thinking.
Basically there are not many philosophical questions to ask. We have already asked some of the most important ones. But history presents us with many different answers to each question. So it is easier to ask philosophical questions than to answer them.
In the first letter that Alberto sends to Sophie, he explains that philosophy is very simple. There are not all that many philosophical questions for us to ask. The point, then, is not simply asking the questions but rather coming up with some sort of a solution for them. And that solution will not be easy. People have been trying to answer some of the questions for thousands of years and we can take into consideration what they already said, but in the end the answer must satisfy us personally. Also the role of historical context becomes important. Freedom in ancient Athens meant something different from what it means now simply because slavery was an accepted part of life back then. There are aspects of every historical period that by current standards are judged wrong, and this means that we too will someday be looked upon as unjust or immoral in certain ways. Philosophy moves with human history.
A philosopher knows that in reality he knows very little. That is why he constantly strives to achieve true insight. Socrates was one of these rare people. He knew that he knew nothing about life and the world. And now comes the important part: it troubled him that he knew so little.
One of the most important philosophical truths is the one that Socrates was famous for. Alberto tells Sophie about it early on in their correspondence. Socrates started from the fact that he knew nothing. ##Descartes# likewise built up the first great modern system by systematically doubting all of his knowledge. In both cases there is a striking conclusion. Socrates does know something, and that is that he knows nothing. The statement is paradoxical, but also very powerful. It allowed him to use his ignorance as a tool. If one knows nothing then one can ask questions about anything. Not knowing anything is the first step on the path to philosophical wisdom, and Gaarder continually warns us against assuming knowledge of anything. Descartes doubted everything, and finally the one thing he knew was that he doubted. From that doubt he went on to create a grand philosophy. The point is that in order to actually learn something it is better to strip ourselves of what we think we know or what others have told us. Certain knowledge of our ignorance is preferable to uncertain knowledge. Above all else, Gaarder wants us to think about what we know and believe.
"According to Berkeley, my own soul can be the cause of my own ideas—just as when I dream—but only another will or spirit can be the cause of the ideas that make up the 'corporeal' world. Everything is due to that spirit which is the cause of 'everything in everything' and which 'all things consist in,' he said."
A little more than halfway through the story Alberto explains to Sophie about Berkeley's philosophy. Berkeley's idea is not necessarily any more enthralling or brilliant than any of the other philosophers who are discussed in the book. However, it just so happens that Berkeley is right in the case of Alberto and Sophie. They exist in the mind of Albert Knag, who created them in order to give his daughter a spectacular birthday gift. The point is not so much that Berkeley was right but rather a magnificent demonstration of just how relevant philosophy can be to our everyday lives. We must not only be philosophers, but we must also study philosophy, because it is possible that a previous thinker came up with a solution to something that is important to us. Furthermore, even if we do not get an answer from the thinkers of the past, seeing other ideas is a great way to stimulate new ones.
"However, we must not exaggerate the importance of these figures. It is enough just to hold a stone in your hand. The universe would have been equally incomprehensible if it had only consisted of that one stone the size of an orange. The question would be just as impenetrable: where did this stone come from?"
At the very end of the book, Albert Knag sits with Hilde and discusses the universe with her. After he describes the Big Bang and points out that we are united in a spectacular way—each one of us stems from that infinitesimally small point that exploded forth and formed the universe—he says that the contents of the universe itself are relatively unimportant. The philosophical question remains the same either way. If the universe were simply a small rock we would still be forced to ask where it came from. Thus the end of the book returns to the beginning. The first questions that Alberto sent to Sophie were "who are you?" and "where does the world come from?" and the book ends pondering the same issues.
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